This is a piece co-written with my colleague Amjad Atallah, who co-directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. This also appears on the Guardian online.
After exactly three weeks of Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli unilateral ceasefire declaration came into effect on Saturday night. While that is a very welcome development, particularly for the civilians of Gaza, it leaves open as many question as it answers. The steps taken by a series of actors, including the combatants and their neighbours and supporters, will determine whether or not this actually leads to a de-escalation and end to hostilities to what has been to a horrendously bloody start to 2009.
Can the ceasefire work?
The unilateral nature of the Israeli declaration is no coincidence. In Saturday's declaration of a ceasefire, Israel is hoping to send the message that Hamas is not a legitimate actor.
So who is the ceasefire actually with? It is, not coincidentally, consistent to some extent with the Egyptian-Turkish-Hamas negotiations which called for a ceasefire for 10 days during which the parties would agree to border crossing mechanisms, followed by an Israeli withdrawal, and an opening of the borders to humanitarian and economic aid.
However, by making the ceasefire a unilateral affair, accompanied only by an arrangement with the US (with whom Israel signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on Friday regarding the prevention of weapons smuggling), Israel can continue its attempts to politically isolate and ostracise the Hamas government in Gaza.
That obviously serves the election campaign narrative of the Israeli governing coalition - yet if Hamas has no political stake in maintaining the ceasefire, it obviously will have little incentive to keep the peace. No one watching the news in the last weeks will have missed Hamas officials shuttling back and forth to Cairo and Doha for both the private and public relations component of preparing a ceasefire. There was a practical reason for the diplomatic activity that included them – they were the ones ruling Gaza.
The diplomatic challenge now will be to provide Hamas with its ladder to climb down – and the crucial ingredients of this are a short timetable for an IDF withdrawal from Gaza and guarantees regarding the opening of border crossings to Gaza in a predictable and ongoing fashion.
But there is also no third party mechanism on the ground to shepherd the two parties through this very dangerous period. A continued IDF presence in Gaza almost guarantees ongoing hostilities. Even if these are of a more sporadic nature then what we witnessed over the last three weeks, there will be a constant risk of escalation. There will be three necessary steps for securing the ceasefire: (1) getting both sides to immediately cease hostilities, (2) ensuring the IDF withdrawal and removing Israeli troops immediately from Palestinian population centres, (3) putting the broader ceasefire package in place which involves amongst other things, opening Gaza and preventing weapons getting in. Beyond that, of course, the underlying issues of the conflict and of the occupation will have to be addressed.
What next for Gaza and a divided Palestinian polity?
The most immediate need is for a massive humanitarian effort to help the injured, the newly homeless and destitute, and to deal with the current health crisis. Many of the some 5,000 injured may very well die in the coming days without immediate medical intervention. The international community will need to make this a priority or risk having the death toll continue to rise even after an end to the bombing.
But very early on, the question will arise of what is the governing address in Gaza, including who is to act as the interface for aid and assistance provision. Aid distribution and assistance will be made much more difficult by the fact that most of the institutional and physical infrastructure of Palestinian governance in Gaza has actually been destroyed or very badly damaged (ministry buildings, police stations, jails, even schools and hospitals). Much, but not all of this, can be channeled through UNRWA and other UN agencies. Still, any effort in Gaza will have to deal in some way with Hamas.
Hamas has been widely recognised since it took power as having provided an effective and functioning central government address, albeit a controversial one. Hamas has largely restored law and order and effectively imposed discipline (and imposed a ceasefire while it was in fact being honoured) on both its own militia and that of other factions- the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees, and Fatah, although in the case of the latter this has taken the form of political suppression.
The question of acknowledging and dealing with the reality of Hamas versus attempting to forcibly remove it remains the same today as it has been since the Hamas election victory and its assumption of exclusive power in Gaza. The difference today is that this will now be played out against the backdrop of a devastated and enraged Gazan landscape, one in which the test-tube conditions now exist for al-Qaida-style jihadists to gain a stronger foothold.
If the West continues with its current policy then the temptation will be to use donor reconstruction assistance as a stealth instrument to achieve regime change. The Palestinian Authority's President Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad do have a role in rebuilding Gaza but that can either be done as part of a genuine effort at national reconciliation or the continuation of a policy that has failed dismally.
As the West considers how to assist Gaza in its moment of most need, it must belatedly heed the advice of the likes of Israel's former Mossad chief Ephraim HaLevy, former US secretary of state Colin Powell, former Middle East envoy General Anthony Zinni, Sir Jeremy Greenstock and many others, and find direct and indirect ways to engage Hamas and encourage putting the Palestinian Humpty Dumpty together again (It's worth noting also that there is a sense in certain European quarters of Gaza and West Bank reconstruction assistance being a Groundhog Day budget, a request that keeps getting repeated after every round of destruction).
In many ways, this might be a decisive moment on the internal Palestinian front. The current Fatah leadership has been weakened in many Palestinian eyes by appearing to be an irrelevant bystander during this crisis. Indeed, there have been prominent voices of dissent from within Fatah, such as Marwan Barghouthi confidant Kadura Fares and former security chief Jibril Rajoub. There was even a joint statement by all Palestinian parliamentary factions criticising the Palestinian Authority's handling of demonstrations and opposition in the West Bank and its suppression of "freedom of expression and democracy." Will Fatah try to use this moment to forge a new unity government or will its supporters see this as an opportunity to try to replace Hamas politically?
Hamas too has its own internal calculations to make. As a political movement it has been strengthened even as it has been militarily weakened. But hard questions will be asked within the movement regarding the extent to which they share responsibility for what has happened in Gaza. It will not be surprising if Hamas enters into a process of consultation, rethinks and potential leadership shifts over the coming months.
As Israel focuses during the next week on its internal politics, so too might the Palestinians, this being perhaps one of the last chances to forge some unity and pull division back from the brink of being irredeemable. The more independent groups, such as Mustafa Barghouthi and his Mubadara party, as well as the more independent voices within Fatah and Hamas, and NGO and civil society leaders will need to rise to the occasion and take a lead role in this. This might well determine whether a potential US-led effort to forge a broad Middle East peace will have the advantage of a relatively unified Palestinian polity or whether a resolution will need to be promoted without true Palestinian representation.
The impact on Israel: war and elections (or why the two shouldn't mix)
In the lead-up to the ceasefire declaration, the government PR machine in Israel was working overtime, telling its citizens what a success this has been. A series of reports appeared about Hamas collapsing, of its poor performance in the fighting and of the regional and international support for Israel's actions. The conduct of this war and the election campaign which formed its domestic political backdrop have never been far apart. That campaign, nominally suspended for the three weeks of fighting, will now be rejoined in full force as the outcomes of Operation Cast Lead are dissected.
An unusual challenge that faced Israel's leadership from the moment it launched this campaign was the need to emerge with not just one but two Israeli victory narratives and victory photos – one each for the defence minister and foreign minister Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, who will lead their respective competing parties in the elections on February 10. That particular acrobatic feat was achieved when Livni could claim her supposed diplomatic victory and there being a ceasefire without Hamas alongside the more obvious and equally suspect claim of military victory for Barak.
Both, though, will share a message of this having been an effective campaign in downgrading Hamas, removing much of its missile threat, with minimal Israeli losses while sustaining strong support from Israel's allies and having the sound judgment to know when to call it a day and before resigning oneself to an indefinite reoccupation of Gaza.
Most of the push-back against that position will come from the right. They will argue that Israel did not go far enough, that the IDF was not allowed to finish the job and totally annihilate Hamas, that rockets were still being fired on the last day, that the hostage Gilad Shalit is still held captive, and of course, that this should all have been done a long time ago.
The Israeli left will offer a politically quieter, although morally more booming, critique that the war was unnecessary and its aims could have been achieved without fighting as they are the same that existed on December 19. Thus far, the Gaza war has significantly strengthened Barak and his Labour party but not enough to challenge the front-runners Netanyahu of Likud and Livni of Kadima with the former still maintaining a slight lead. Ultimately though, the world of political campaign rhetoric will look rather divorced from the real world implications for Israel of what has happened over the last three weeks. If one defines national security in an irresponsibly narrow way, then yes, Hamas does indeed now have fewer missiles overall and long-range missiles in particular, and a sense of deterrence, at least as far as the Palestinians are concerned, has been restored after the battles in Lebanon in 2006.
But at what costs?
Israel's allies have been weakened and a more hard-line, anti-Israel stance has found new resonance and new adherents. All this should matter to Israel's long-term security. Perhaps most disturbing has been the sense, amidst the civilian losses and suffering, of a deep absence of a moral compass, something that 41 years as an occupier can do to a country and that many feared would be the most harmful effect for Israel of this unresolved conflict. Israel's image internationally has not been at such a low point since Lebanon in 1982, and even Egypt's president excluded the Israeli leadership from its Sharm summit. The destruction has created new levels and new generations of hostility toward Israel.
The regional swing vote
While the Gaza crisis has been mostly about the local, immediate dimensions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it has fuelled region-wide tensions. While it is too reductionist to view this as a proxy war, it has certainly pitted two rival regional camps against each other. The two camps in the Arab and Muslim world have roughly divided into those who believe that Palestinian freedom can only be achieved through resistance, and those who believe that only diplomatic non-violent engagement will accomplish this aim. It may be a false choice in that neither has actually created a Palestinian state or created a peace agreement between Israel and her neighbours.
Nevertheless, those who have argued adamantly for a diplomatic approach have again been set back. The Arab world and its collective institutions, notable the Arab League, have been shown at their most dysfunctional. For three weeks, the Arab League failed to convene its leaders despite the events in Gaza dominating Arab media around the clock, and despite mass-street protests across the Arab world. America's government allies were caught between a rock and a hard place, being hostile to Hamas but unable to identify with Israel. They found themselves ever more alienated from their own public.
Even when key Arab leaders at the UN Security Council helped pass resolution 1860, little changed on the ground. Perhaps the most interesting aspect has been to follow what one might call the regional swing vote, actors that are not part of the Iran/Syria/Hamas/Hezbollah camp on the one hand or the Egypt/PA/Saudi/Jordanian camp on the other. The mood in the swing camp was summed up by Qatar hosting a consultative session of the Arab League on Friday in Doha with the Iranian and Syrian presidents and Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal in attendance, alongside Turkish, Lebanese, Algerian and Organization of Islamic conference senior representatives. This is indicative of where the popular mood has been with secular nationalists, reformists, and democrats siding with Islamists in their support for Hamas as the representative of the Palestinians in Gaza.
The US will be faced with the choice of either continuing this dichotomy, and the conflict which has so exacerbated regional tensions, or whether it will seek to shuffle the deck by addressing the conflict at its root while engaging region-wide to address the specific national interests of various parties consistent with its own national security interests.
The new Obama administration and the future of the peace process
While the Obama inauguration is probably not the only factor that determined the timing of this ceasefire, it is hard not to see a connection with Israel almost certainly not wanting an ongoing Gaza crisis to rain on Tuesday's parade and to force their conflict with the Palestinians any higher up the new administration's agenda than it already is. Nevertheless, solidifying the ceasefire and the aftermath of this conflict will exercise the Obama team from day one in office, forcing them to make early choices in how they will approach the Israel/Palestine issue. The Obama administration will likely have to ensure the full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, follow-up on US support for weapons smuggling efforts, while simultaneously taking a position on Gaza reconstruction efforts.
The backdrop will be whether US assistance will be used to build Palestinian internal reconciliation, to help with a broader effort to finally secure Israel's and America's security through a broad inclusive peace deal, or to continue the Bush policy of promoting divisions in the hope of continuing to help Israel manage the occupation at great cost to both American and Israeli national security interests.
This much seems clear: the Annapolis approach is badly in need of a rethink. Indeed, the Annapolis process has been one of the less innocent victims of Operation Cast Lead. Beyond this immediate crisis, the bigger Israeli/Palestinian conflict looms.
A post-Gaza peace effort may not come with the hugs and handshakes of past deals. It may look more like a begrudging separation with hard borders, international guarantees, and even Nato forces deployed, as well as strong incentive packages for both sides. Rather than the friendly peace imagined by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993, the US may need to force a Kosovo or East Timor-style peace with reconciliation to come later. In either case, it will mean finally achieving de-occupation and Palestinian statehood along with a secure Israel and recognized borders. Crucially, it means moving beyond the neo-conservative dogma and the policy it represented that has so destabilised the Middle East for the last eight years.